Set in the mid 1600’s, The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, was one of the most influential and prolific works of it’s times. Read by millions and widely revered for it’s deep rooted themes, The Scarlet Letter explores the depths of concepts such as sexism, sin, evil, and the perils of a Puritan society.
Through his simple yet deeply moving story, Hawthorne brings to light the prejudices of sexism, the consumption of the souls by hatred and revenge, and the contemplation of rightful or wrongful sins. Powerful and seductive, The Scarlet Letter is considered a classic masterpiece and a true testament to man’s eternal fight between the heart and the mind, emotions and the intellect.
As the story begins, Hester Prynne is being led from the town prison with her daughter in her hands. A man in the crowd turns to an elderly onlooker and informs him that Hester is being punished for alleged adultery that the priests of the city believe she committed due to her pregnancy which occured while her husband was missing, presumed to be lost at sea. Heather is made to wear a scarlet letter ‘A’ embroidered onto her clothing as a sign of her adultery, and was punished by being made to stand on the town scaffold for 3 hours and face public humiliation. As she passed the crowd, she noticed the elderly onlooker and realized in utter dread and misbelief that the man was her long lost husband.
On hearing the story of his wife’s betrayal, the man sets out to get revenge on her as well as her partner in crime, taking up the name of ‘Roger Chillingworth’ and setting up his medical practice in Boston, where he could be close to his former wife and find out who her secret lover was. Hester was coaxed and questioned many a time regarding the identity of her lover, but she refused to divulge any information, resulting in punishment every time.
Chillingsworth begins his plot by approaching Hester in prison under the guise of calming her baby and her with his medicinal roots and herbs. He demands to know who the father of the child is, but once again, Hester refuses an answer. Chillingsworth leaves her with an eerie threat, and she promises not to expose his true identity, knowing full well that she will regret it at some point.
When the town’s reverend, Arthur Dimmesdale, falls worryingly ill, Chillingsworth moves into his house to provide him with round the clock care and be present in case of any emergencies. While living with and treating the good reverend, Chillingsworth begins to suspect that the reverend’s illness is a result of mental illness and stress caused by the deep shame and guilt of burying a secret. One day, while pulling the robe over his sleeping chest, there amongst the heaves and heavy sighs, Chillingsworth notices a scarlet letter ‘A’ imprinted on the reverend’s chest. He arrives at the conclusion that Dimmesdale is the biological father of Hester’s child, and it was this secret that has been troubling him and making him ill.
Dimmesdale is tormented by his guilt, and climbs up to the scaffold where Hester was publicly punished and admits his guilt to her and Pearl, who is now an inquisitive and intelligent seven year old, and a constant force in reminding Dimmesdale of his failure to do right by them and accept them as his family. Although he gives in to Hester and Pearl, he does not have the courage to go public with his admission. Shortly after, a meteor crosses the sky, leaving a scarlet ‘A’ imprinted in the deepening crimson sky, and is taken as a bad omen by Hester and Pearl. They sight Chillingsworth at this point, and Hester begs him to let go of his revenge as she fears it will consume his soul. She breaks her promise to Chillingsworth and calls Dimmesdale to the woods one day, where she removes the Scarlet letter from her chest and reveals Chillingsworth’s true identity to him.
Hester convinces Dimmesdale to flee with her on a ship to Europe, where they can raise their family together and live happily together with pearl. At first rejuvinated by this plan, Dimmesdale later loses faith, and his condition deteriorates. On Election day, Dimmesdale declares one of his most inspiring sermons, but while leaving he collapses, and he knows his end is near. Seeing Hester and Pearl in the crowd, he gathers the last of his strength and climbs up on the scaffold, declaring and confessing his love for her and his legitimacy as Pearl’s father, after which he dies in Hester’s arms.
Having lost the object of his revenge, Chillingsworth too looses the will to live and dies shortly after, leaving Pearl with a healthy inheritance which she uses to move to Europe with Hester. Pearl marries into a wealthy European family, and Hester moves back to Boston to take up her little sewing business again; she has now become a maternal figure and a support system for many battered women, and the shadowed shame of her past has slowly dissapated and been replaced with admiration for her strength.
The beauty and the meaning of the story of The Scarlet Letter play out through Hawthorne’s well planned, deeply connected characters, using their experiences and troubles to tap a deeper intellect in the mind of his readers. Hester is a woman tormented by the shame of what was considered to be a crime at the time, in a moment of weakness and desperation. Her sins were drawn from love and compassion, much like those of Dimmesdale’s and quite contrary to those of Chillingsworth. Dimmesdale’s character is used proficiently in Hawthorne’s quest to teach is readers about the trauma of hidden and subsided guilt, whereas Chillingworth’s character is used to display man’s affinity for hatred and revenge and the adverse effects it can have on his soul.
Pearl is an extremely important supporting character in the story. Although young, she stands to be the voice of reason in most situations, calling Dimmesdale out on his shortcomings, and forever questioning the conveniently forgotten truths of adulthood.
The timeless elegance with which Hawthorne spews out his heartbreaking tale will be forever loved and admired by literary fanatics throughout the times. The audiobook of The Scarlet Letter is narrated beautifully and eloquently, and stands as a strong defence against the social injustice of sexism and the control of men over women all throughout history.
The book reminds us humbly of the need of humans to repent and redeem their sins, as well as to forgive and forget, for the sake of the saving their souls. The story is a reminder to all of how vengeance and hatred can consume a man to a point where a life without it isn’t worth living, and how the mind and heart will constantly battle each other in the world of human conscience. Listeners will be mesmerized by this beautiful tale, and the experience will only leave them wanting more of Hawthorne’s genius!